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Another $16 billion in aid, but Afghan businessmen say help us

World leaders in Tokyo pledge more aid to Afghanistan. But Afghan businessmen worry that the country is too aid dependent and want help with the private sector. 

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In 2003, Khalilurahman Ahmadi and his brothers decided to start a pipe and plastic factory in Kandahar. Though the family business was fruit import and export with no factory experience, Mr. Ahmadi says he and his brothers felt inspired to “help the country,” which was in dire need of industry. Since then, Ahmadi has focused on building the family’s new company, Imran Atiqu PVC.

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Initially, several family friends from Iran and Pakistan with experience in running a plastic factory came to Afghanistan to help, but they left when security began deteriorating in 2005 and 2006.

Ahmadi, who has only a sixth-grade education and no factory background, could not train employees and he says he found little help from the international community. What training they did provide in Kandahar he says was usually related to management skills, not technical education.

Ahmadi also must deal with employees who are often illiterate with no formal education to speak of. Such employees are prone to make mistakes using digital scales, a serious problem in the plastics business where a minor measurement error can seriously change the composition of a pipe.

“In the last 11 years we have change from the money that has been spent. We have security forces, some roads were built, and some other projects were implemented. But as for support for the private sector, I am not happy,” says Ahmadi.

One of the most serious problems Ahmadi faces is the lack of a sustainable electricity source. The US has provided generator power that electrifies the industrial area that is home to Imran Atiqu PVC and other factories, but Americans still provide the fuel to power the generators. Despite commitments at the Tokyo conference, there are still concerns about what will happen as US and NATO forces draw down.

Only 18 percent of Afghanistan has access to reliable electricity, up from 6 percent in 2002. In Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan, there is much frustration that hydroelectric dam projects in the area that could solve this problem remain incomplete.

“Billions of dollars have been spent in Afghanistan, but what have we gotten as a benefit?” says Mohammad Kabir Darwaish, an independent economic analyst in Kandahar. “We spent all this money, but the main thing that can support our economy is electricity and it has not been built.”

More than industry, throughout Afghanistan many are betting on the mining sector and finding new markets for agricultural products to fill in the gaps as donor spending inevitably recedes. The mining sector, however, has yet to become operational and begin creating jobs or revenue for the state.

The latest round of international pledges of assistance comes with more strings attached. The money is conditional on the Afghan government reducing corruption and improving governance. In addition to taking stronger anti-corruption measures, the Afghan government must meet good governance standards to receive up to 20 percent of the donor money.

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